The Other Switzerland–In Italian
A sultry breeze wafts in through tall palms and fig trees, where small waves lap at the shoreline. Stately Renaissance-era buildings overlook the water, which is fringed by steep mountains. Friendly passersby smile and greet us in Italian.
Yet we are not on the Mediterranean. We are strolling a beautifully landscaped promenade along a large freshwater lake. And this is not Italy, but the charming city of Lugano in landlocked Switzerland.
My wife Annie and I are discovering, to our surprise and delight, the “other,” lesser known Italian part of that country.
It looks and feels quite different from the German areas beyond the Alps to the north, or the French regions to the west. The Italian-speaking minority, concentrated mainly here in the canton of Ticino, comprises less than 7% of the Swiss population.
We arrive in Lugano at a train station situated halfway up a steep hillside. Fortunately, there is a little one-car funicular railway that takes us and our luggage down and leaves us right outside our hotel entrance in the lower, lakeside part of the city.
Later, we board a much larger funicular that carries us nearly 3000 feet up to a chapel and scenic outlook atop Mount San Salvatore. It offers fabulous vistas over the long arms of Lake Lugano. In some ways, the canton is a cultural and linguistic extension of northern Italy’s gorgeous district of sinuous mountain lakes, such as Maggiore and Como. The opposite shore of Lake Lugano, just a few miles away from our viewpoint, is also Italian territory. Milan is only an hour’s drive southward.
In other ways, though, Ticino is decidedly Swiss. The streets are immaculately clean. The trains and buses run like clockwork. There is little in the way of labor strife or government corruption. Many individuals and businesses from Milan keep their money in the safe haven of Lugano’s banks, which has made it Switzerland’s third largest financial center (after Zurich and Geneva).
Another day, we take a tour of Bellinzona, Ticino’s small capital city, with a guide named Julie. Born and raised in the US, her husband is Italian-Swiss, and she swears by the vibrant Ticino lifestyle. “We have the best of all worlds,” she tells us.
“The Italian flair and zestful way of life, combined with Swiss order and reliability.” Along our train route, we had noticed countless small backyard vineyards. “Yes, that’s very common here,” says Julie. In fact, her brother-in-law grows his own grapes, makes wine and has it distilled into about 30 liters of powerful grappa a year.
She takes us to see three impressive, painstakingly restored 13th to 15th century castles that dominate Bellinzona. Garrisoned with hundreds of soldiers, and at times thousands, they were built by the dukes of Milan to command a narrow but strategic river.
At Bellinzona, two valleys converge, both descending from mountain passes to the north.
The largest fortress, Castelgrande, flanks the river. The city’s massive walls once actually spanned the stream itself; soldiers on horseback could quickly be dispatched to the opposite river bank. For centuries, the expansionist German-Swiss forces made occasional forays across the mountains, and fierce battles were fought at Bellinzona.
In times of peace, the castles served as bases for taxing trade over the Alps. Montebello castle, high on a slope, today hosts an annual medieval festival, with jousting, period costumes, and roast pig eaten without cutlery from wooden bowls.
But there is more to the area than history and architecture. The Italian-Swiss have their own distinctive culinary arts and specialties as well. In Lugano, we admire the salamis, bolognas, prosciuttos and other cured meats hanging in the decorative window of a salumeria, or delicatessen. We go for dinner to one of Lugano’s cave-like grotto restaurants where they offer such rustic fare as tripe, along with Italian mainstays like pasta.
Annie orders delicious lake perch with risotto, while I choose succulent calf’s liver with potatoes and buttered spinach. We drink our wine from small ceramic bowls instead of glasses. At lunch in Bellinzona, Annie cannot resist the novelty and orders a steak of horse meat. I take a nibble, agree that it is tender and tasty, and go back with greater pleasure to my lasagna.
Another Italian Enclave
Nor is Ticino the only Swiss region with a distinctly Italianate local culture. To the east is another Italian-speaking enclave, one that belongs to the sprawling, mainly Germanic canton of Graubuenden.
We get there via a spectacular narrow-gauge mountain railway, the Bernina Express. With dome cars for enhanced viewing, the train negotiates 55 tunnels (including the highest in all the Alps) and crosses 76 bridges and vertigo-inducing viaducts perched on towering stone pillars.
One viaduct makes a perfect circle, doubling back upon itself but at a lower elevation. Some of the tunnels, blasted out of the mountains by dynamite over 100 years ago, spiral like corkscrews deep within the rock and come out much higher or lower than where they enter the cliff face. At the route’s summit, we pass glistening white glaciers and look down upon a lake that is still frozen even in late May. It is a marvel of Swiss engineering.
Our destination is Poschiavo, one of the most enchanting villages in Europe. The sense of tradition and continuity is palpable. We sniff the enticing aromas at an award-winning little bakery, celebrated for its cakes and fruit breads, which has been a family business for 65 years. Proprietor Franco Bordoni is proud that his son will soon take over and carry the shop into its third generation.
We spend the night at the historic Albrici hotel, formerly an inn where horses were exchanged and travelers could get a meal and a night’s sleep while en route between Vienna and Rome. Built in the 17th century, it was run for 150 years by the same family. One public room displays an 18th century spinet piano and 12 framed oil paintings of sibyls, mythological ancient female characters that could predict the future. The 10 bedrooms feature antique furniture but no phones, TV or other electronics.
We dine outside on the cobblestone piazza, the village center, which is bracketed by two ancient churches. The Albrici’s youthful owner, Claudio Zanolari, who rides to work on his bicycle, took over the hotel from his father. Although we are tempted by the wood-fired pizzas, Zanolari recommends some regional main dishes.
I enjoy flavorful buckwheat noodles in a creamy cheese sauce, garnished with a skewer of endive and slices of salami. Annie savors the tasty spinach dumplings (gnocchi) with melted mortadella cheese.
Lingering over our wine at dusk, we absorb Italian-Swiss village life on a glorious warm evening. Fashionably dressed families stroll through the piazza, to see and be seen. They pause at the central fountain for the children to splash and carouse.
Across the square, patrons sip drinks or espresso at a cafe. Suddenly, both church towers burst into a concert of pealing bells. The moment is romantic and sublime.
Ticino Travel Tips:
The most convenient way to travel is with an all-inclusive Swiss Pass for the fine public transportation system (trains, subways, buses, lake steamers, funiculars),
Tom Koppel has visited five continents and written for major publications in the US, Canada and Australia. His latest book is Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific. When not traveling or writing, he cultivates a garden, tends fruit trees and chops firewood on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
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